Rebekah and I leave Kars in a snowstorm early one morning and weave our winter way through Ardahan and Artvin to Şavşat, a small town without much to say for itself.
We left Halil’s place early, without any tea. There’s no çay in Şavşat – only shitty buildings, piles of bricks and hard, unsmiling stares from those we pass on uncrowded streets. Rain is abundant, unlike the tea. We leave as fast as possible, wondering why this small city should be so much more miserable than its neighbours.
We inch our way North to the Black Sea coast. People had warned us to beware of wolves. We peer skittishly over snow-caked fields, see occasional bushy tails disappear over frosted mounds. Finally, we meet some amidst a long wait in a lay-by, somewhere on the way to Hopa.
The wolves lick our hands and snuffle into our plastic food bag, thoroughly cramping our style and warding off anyone who may ever have dreamed of stopping for us.
A group of three men idle out of the roadside shop and stand by us, watching, occasionally asking a question. I let Rebekah do the talking , embarrassed by my own meagre Turkish.
Finally, we get a lift to Trabzon with an older, well-travelled man. He speaks Turkish, Russian and a little Persian, English and German. Rebekah, who also speaks Turkish, Russian, English and a little Persian (as well as German, Dutch, French and a bit of Kurdish and Urdu), chats away with him in each of them. He seems thoroughly impressed by her and I feel myself to be a bit of a let-down.
As we approach Trabzon, our ride slows down and we lose over an hour for reasons unknown. Perhaps he was running early for his appointment with his Russian girlfriend, who he begins to tell us about as we’re approaching the city. He drops us 8km from Çağatay‘s house, outside the hotel where he’ll be staying with her.
We begin walking.
We arrive at Çağatay’s house late, not in the best of moods. We take him out for çiğ köfte – my favourite vegetarian Turkish fast food. I’m aware of a gulf between cheery innocent Çağatay and these two road-battered women. I’m not sure if it was there or not the last time we met.
The next day, Rebekah and I stumble out of the door as early as we can manage.
Escaping from Trabzon is tough.
Eventually, around lunchtime, we find a dolmuş – a shared minibus – to Akçaabat, further along the coast.
We hitch a truck to Samsun, but get out after 10km when the driver asks directly for sex.
We hitch a ride to Giresun with a man in small van, with dodgy eyes and a lot of questions.
Rebekah wanted to see the Black Sea coast in winter. We knew already that this area of Anatolia isn’t the most favourable place for female hitchhikers. Trabzon, in particular, is infamous for its large population of sex workers, who migrate from Russia and other post-Soviet countries to make money from Turkish truck drivers and sex tourists. One of the side-effects of this is that truck drivers are often seemingly unable to imagine that women might be standing by the road for any reason other than sex.
The worst is a truck driver on the way to Samsun. I sit straight in my seat, hands folded in lap, and try to evoke the countenance of a prim primary school teacher with a poker face. Rebekah is still doing the talking. Her fluency quickly makes it impossible for her to ignore the hints and subtleties which I could easily have glossed over, feigning ignorance. She becomes frustrated quickly, and it shows. Unfortunately, rather than the desired effect of ceasing the truck driver’s flirtation, her display of discomfort only escalates matters.
We each have our ways of dealing with things. Rebekah is frustrated and upset and I can see the driver is getting off on it. I try to calm her down, but she becomes irate, thinking I don’t understand or don’t believe her version of events. I cannot understand all of the words the man is saying to us, but I am hyper-tuned into his body-language and his energy. It’s true that she is the one who will suffer more if we stay in the truck with him. After all, she has to listen, has to understand, where I can just tune him out. On her request, I take the reigns and adopt a tourist-Turkish ‘asking about the family’ stream of conversation. Unfortunately, he takes this as an opportunity to tell us about how hard his work is, with his wife and family a whole 7km outside of Trabzon and how he has a Russian girlfriend, who is currently away. Rebekah explodes.
We climb out from the truck and wait for another lift, each subduing our inner rage.
When I’m asked by drivers if I’ve eaten, I always say yes, declining, at least the first time, the offer of food. Rebekah, on the other hand, is of the idea that we put up with a lot of shit as female hitchhikers, and road-gifts are the pay-off for this. When two businessmen stop and ask if we’ve eaten, Rebekah tells them, “Oh no, we haven’t eaten anything all day!” They drive us to the nearest restaurant.
After a slap-up meal at the poshest restaurant in town, the men put us on a bus to Samsun, telling the driver to drop us on the road to Ankara.
We’re not long on the road when a guy stops. Rebekah goes to talk to him, returning to say he looks drunk. We’re well practised at getting out of cars by now, so we decide to get in and see how it goes. His driving is terrible, but he seems nice enough, though he’s not very chatty. “Small brain, big heart” is our eventual conclusion. He phones all of his friends and tells them – “I have two tourists with me. Tourists! One is from England and one is from Germany!” He buys us coffee, then stops in Çorum, a town famous for its leblebi – roasted chickpeas, eaten as a snack. Huge neon signs pronounce the sale of every type you can imagine, from chocolate-coated to plain. Our driver takes us into one after another after another – “Turist!” he tells the sales people, while encouraging us to try a handful of each different type, before sauntering into the next place along and beginning all over again – “Turist!”
During our journey the guy spontaneously gives us small presents – anything lying around in his car. He gives me a picture of two Turkeys and Rebekah a photo of a fat bird. We thank him, struggling to keep our faces straight.
After running our of petrol and crawling into a garage, the guy puts us on a bus to Ankara, where we meet Rebekah’s friend, Ümit.
During our journey, I heard drivers ask Rebekah, in Turkish, if I could speak Turkish. I heard her say no, repeatedly. I tried not to let this get to me, reasoning that to her, my Turkish is like a child’s at best, and that anyway, I had barely spoken it in front of her because my confidence was so low. Ümit saves the traces of my confidence, with his warmth and patience, speaking with me while Rebekah is in the shower.
It’s been a long, slow road. Rebekah and I are both exhausted. I will continue my journey to Istanbul alone, by coach, the following day, leaving Rebekah with Ümit in Ankara. I will decide, not for the first time, that I’m never going to hitchhike the Black Sea coast again.
I will go back on that decision two months later.
Rebekah described this journey from her own perspective on her blog.
23-24th January, 2013
After the melting slush of Yerevan, Armenia resembles a soft white cloud, undulating to the border. The marshrutka – a small shared minibus – bobs and dives over hidden potholes, swerving around slippery mountain edges. Most Yerevantsi – people from Yerevan – won’t leave the city at all in the winter, the roads are considered too treacherous.
I abandoned my plan to hitch-hike back to Turkey after two hours standing on the road. Cars were stopping, but I found myself somehow edgy and nervous, waving them away. I arrived at Yerevan bus station just in time for the last marshrutka to Tbilisi, costing 6,500 Dram – just under €12.
We are an interesting crew: myself, two older Armenian chaps, an Indian guy and a young bushy-haired Japanese traveller, who clambers on at the last minute, lugging his backpack in after him.
After the co-humiliation of the border-crossing, in which we are shepherded, scrutinised and eventually stamped into Georgia, I get chatting with the Indian guy. He’s from Delhi, but now lives in Batumi, where he runs a bar. He speaks not only fluent English and Georgian, but also Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Punjabi and Sanskrit. I wait with him for his friend’s car when the marshrutka drops us on the fringes of the city centre. They give me a ride to Rustavelli Avenue, where I meet my friend Petra. We gossip over a delicious soup made by her flatmate and drink a lot of tea.
Tbilisi is blue skies and sunshine when I arrive at Dadoni bus station the following morning and seek out the marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe – closest I can seemingly get to the Turkish border. Crossing almost the whole of Georgia is going to cost 12 Lari – just over €5.50. I approach a small stand where a woman sits shivering, newspaper gripped between fingerless gloves. She peers at me through small rectangular glasses over the rim of her scarf. “Coffee please.” I try not to smile. One should never smile in post-Soviet countries. She places the jazzve on her little gas burner, scooping the foam from the top just as it begins to simmer. I watch how she expertly places the jazzve on and off the hot sand, pouring a little more coffee into the plastic cup each time. “Didi matloba”, I tell her, hoping I’ve remembered it right. The scant Georgian I picked up while hitchhiking with Emée and Alfie three months ago seems to have trickled out of my ear.
A man shoves a bundle of wicker brooms through the door of my marshrutka. He’s the latest in a string of autonomous market vendors to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the waiting passengers. A woman comes by the open window, sells two bananas to one woman and a kilo of tangerines to another. Another boards the bus and regales us with a speech about the small Christian calendar she’s brandishing, for which she asks one Lari.
As soon as we leave Tbilisi, the road disappears into a cloud of drizzle. It’s a three hour ride to Akhaltsikhe.
The internet contains rumours of a bus into Turkey at 2:30pm. I ask around at the bus station and am directed to a woman living in a sketchy-looking hotel above the station building. I speak with her in Turkish and she tells me yes, a bus will come in one hour.
The coach comes. It’s a Turkish coach, completely empty but for the driver and another man, his assistant. They unload a quantity of what I take to be smuggled goods and I ask about the journey to Ardahan. “Yes, yes,” they tell me, “the bus will go there tomorrow.” Tomorrow? But I need to go now! I ask about Posof. Yes, they are going to the border, but they want 40 Lari – around €20. It’s far too much for a 10km journey. I walk away with my head down, not quite knowing what to do.
The coach pulls away. The woman upstairs is shouting down to me – “coach! Coach!” “Ardahan, no!” I shout up. The coach stops at a gas station further down the road. The woman is still shouting, pointing at the bus. I decide to give it one last shot. The men are not particularly friendly. They tell me to wait. They fill the bus with petrol, talk with some Georgian guys nearby and grab coffee and sandwiches, ignoring me the whole time. “OK, let’s go!” one of the guys tells me – I’m getting a free ride into Turkey.
As we drive, the guys warm a little, ask where I’m from and what my name is. They wait for me at the border while my passport is stamped, and we’re on the road to Ardahan.
As soon as I’m in Turkey, my attitude lifts. Hitchhiking, a problem? No way! I see the turning to Kars and ask the coach driver to stop.
A car skids to a halt as soon as I raise my thumb. “Nereye gidiyorsunuz?”I ask, happy to be speaking Turkish again. “Kars!” comes the reply. I grin and get in, text messaging Halil while chatting to the drivers – I’ll be with you in two hours.
20th-24th December, 2012, Shiraz and Persepolis
I am a giraffe in Iran. I walk the streets with my long neck, swaying in the breeze. People stop and gape. “Where from? Where from?” They’ve never seen a giraffe before, not even on television. Trouble is, being an exotic animal is starting to grind me down.
They say Shiraz is the most beautiful city in Iran. To me, it’s just a regular Iranian city, albeit with more trees, a bit less traffic pollution and more historical monuments. Ornamental orange trees decorate the avenues. There’s a giant adobe castle in the centre of the city.
The Long Night of Boredom
It’s the end of December 20th and so far the world has shown no sign of impending explosion, implosion or anything else. I kind of wish it would. The woman sits by the bonfire, waffling on and on, apparently about Zoroastrianism. She has been speaking in Farsi for hours already and there’s no sign, so far, that she will ever end, let alone the rest of the world. The man sitting next to me, my host – so far the only person who’s spoken to me – seems equally as bored. Tonight is Yalda Night: the longest night of the year. It’s traditional to celebrate this night by staying awake ’til dawn. I doubt I’ll make it to midnight.
When I was told of a party in a private garden in Shiraz, visions of liberal Iranians sitting around sipping shiraz wine came to mind. This was based not only on wishful thinking, but also on information imparted by a friend from Shiraz, who told me that people here still make the wine secretly, despite it’s prohibition. No such luck. Every woman in the private, walled garden is still wearing her hijab. Wine would be unthinkable.
During the next twelve hours, another three people attempt to begin a conversation with me, each beginning with the words “what is your idea about..?” I’m asked for my idea about Persepolis (I don’t have one), Stonehenge (it’s a big clock), “our land” (presumably meaning Iran), Allah (tried to avoid answering that one) and Iranian people – to which I respond that here, like everywhere, there are some very nice people and some total bastards, but mostly people are somewhere in-between – a complex mixture of life-experiences, thoughts and emotions, neither ‘good’, nor ‘bad’. It’s not a popular answer.
As the night wears on, my temper shortens. There is one woman with a light shining out of her eyes, but barely a word of English. She struggles to ask which city I’m from. Her husband sneers at her and says something in Persian. “What did he say?” I ask the man standing next to me. “He told her this is not important.” I spend the next half an hour communicating with the woman in a series of gestures and smiles. We share a big hug when we finally leave. After almost 24 hours in that garden, I feel like I’m getting out of prison.
The End of the World
Ali is my new host. He lives alone in the centre of Shiraz. It’s very uncommon in Iran for an unmarried guy in his thirties to live alone. We have some friends in common and are both members of the hitchhiking group on a certain hospitality exchange website, so we have plenty to talk about. Conversation swings to the End of the World which, according to popular interpretations, has been predicted by the ancient Mayans to occur at some point on this very eve. Back in Europe, it’s mostly hippies, conspiracy theorists, and other eccentric types who are into this prophecy, however, in Iran it seems to have made it to the mainstream. Several times during my travels I’ve been asked what people in the West are saying about the End of the World. Not much, actually.
If it were really the end of the world, I’d quite like a drink. I mention this to Ali, who promptly grabs a bottle of vodka from the cupboard. This, I was not expecting. We drink into the wee hours, Ali becoming increasingly flirtatious. “Why you are not drunk?” he slurs. “I am,” I tell him, I’m just more used to it than you are. I hear him being sick in the toilet before stumbling off to bed.
Milad is a fun and quirky young couchsurfer who’s passionate about hitchhiking. I contact him through that same inevitable hospitality exchange website and we decide to hitchhike together to Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 70km from Shiraz.
It’s my second time hitching in Iran and I’m glad to have Milad with me. It’s obvious to the drivers that he’s a student and his slight clumsiness adds to his charm. Every car that stops agrees to take us for free. I see men’s eyes in front mirrors and avert them, letting Milad answer all the inevitable questions for me. “Inglistan”, he tells them, when they ask where I’m from. We decided to say we met at a hotel. Couchsurfing is more or less illegal in Iran.
Sunshine vanishes as we leave the city. Persepolis leers out of the fog, adding a striking atmosphere to Iran’s oldest pre-Islamic ruins.
The Grey Flat-Cap
I can’t remember which way the coffee shop is, so I ask a man working at a kebab stand close to the Arg of Karim Khan – the 18th century citadel in the city centre. He points me in the direction of Shohada Square. I know it’s not the way, so I thank him and walk on in the direction I think is right, leaving three men staring after me.
I’ve long since begun looking at the ground as I walk, so as not to meet the eyes I know are everywhere, pointing directly at me. Unfortunately, this means I’m completely unaware of the tall fat boy in the grey flat-cap, until he walks alongside me. “Coffee-shop?” he asks. The only way he can know I’m looking for a coffee shop is if he heard me back at the kebab stand ten minutes earlier. “Are you following me?” His forehead draws down into a frown. He doesn’t understand, but I do. I slow my pace. Flat-cap slows down with me and looks impatient. He wants me to hurry up. After a while, he points down a side-street “Coffee-shop!” he tells me. There’s no way it’s down there. I stop and call my first host, the guy who took me there before. He tells me it’s on Hafez Street – I’m on the right road. When I get off the phone, the guy is gone and I continue walking.
I hear footsteps quicken behind me as the fat boy rushes up to me, grabs a handful of my behind and dashes off down a side-street, leaving me yelling after him – “FUCKING BAAASTAAARD!” He must have been tailing me for over half an hour.
Safely inside Farough Cafe, I engross myself in my writing. On looking up, I notice two young women staring at me as though I’m made of sunlight and gold. One of them asks politely if they can speak with me. I can hardly say no. I tell them about the grey flat-cap and they nod sadly. “We have to get used to this”, one of them says. Apparently this kind of thing happens to them all the time.
The reaction of men is worse. “Male company will reduce lots of hazards.” “Better to avoid crowded downtown streets.” They may as well say it’s my fault for being a woman, for being alone, blonde, not covering every bit of my hair – although I cover as much as the average Tehranian woman.
I feel that my time in Iran is coming to an end. I’m bored of the stares, the attention, the endless questions. I’m bored of being a tourist, of covering my hair and staring at the ground when I walk. I hate being a giraffe.